Raavan: Enemy of Aryavarta (Westland), the third book in Amish Tripathi’s Ram Chandra series, is out. With a warrior princess Sita, a violent yet cultural Ravana, and a morally conflicted Ram, the series has drawn readers, in droves, ever since the first book — Ram: Scion of Ishvaku — released in 2015. But the author doesn’t take credit for a fresh approach, nor does he consider it a fresh one to begin with: instead, he talks of different versions of The Ramayana he has read over 30 years (he includes the tales he was told as a child, among his research) that he drew these characters from. “The Adbhut Ramayana is an ancient version that is also credited to Valmiki, like the original text. In that version, there are two Ravanas. The elder one is killed by Sita ma,” he points out, by way of example. He has also read the Ananda Ramayana, Ramayana Darshanam, and others, but he says Adbhut Ramayana holds a particular appeal for him because, in his words, “In this narrative, all three characters suffered. All three of them had experienced grief; fate was unfair to all three of them. But how they reacted to it was different. It tells you something about their characters.” This is where Amish’s judgment and biases as the author come in, and where he decides the characteristics of the three protagonists. His Ravana, despite all accomplishments, is an inherently negative character — “Ravana’s reaction to his grief was anger and hatred. Sita ma’s was pragmatism and fierce determination. Lord Ram’s approach was that the more people were unfair to him, the more honorable he behaved.” Though Amish depicts his Ravana as a deeply flawed man — doing things like skinning hapless animals alive — he refuses to describe the character as ‘evil’. “Evil is a very loaded word,” says Amish, “I have used ‘evil’ only in a few places in my story, because of the restrictions of the English language. In Vedic Sanskrit, the word ‘dharma’ does not mean evil, it just means that which causes imbalance. And it serves a purpose in the world, our ancestors believed.” He continues, “Unlike the popular, more simplistic perception today, Ravana was not just a thug. He was violent, no doubt, and brutally so, but there were good points to him, too. He was genuinely a scholar, he was extremely well read. He was a brilliant musician and had invented instruments. He had written books.” But having said that, the king of Lanka was also, at the end of the day, the villain in Amish’s story: a king whose soldiers used brutal torture techniques and a child who has no qualms about sabotaging competitors. In contrast is his characterization of Ram, a believer of the rule of law, whose conflict lies in an unintended consequence. “Justice and law are not always the same thing,” says Amish, “Ram faces this when he decides to set free a juvenile, guilty of terrible crimes because the law says so.” If this dilemma (from the first book) sounds like one pertinent to the conflicts of today, it isn’t the only one. In the latest book, Ravana and Kumbhakarna discuss — of all things — the entry of women in Kerala’s Sabarimala temple. Why? Because the author feels that everything he reads or is affected by, can find its way into his work. But when he — or his character Kumbhakarna — takes it upon himself to explain the issue, gender equality is taken right out of the equation. “It is not a gender issue. There are female paths to nirvana, temples where men are not allowed. These [and Sabarimala] follow the sannyasa route: you and I don’t hear about them because most such temples were destroyed long ago. The ones we are used to today, follow the grihastha route
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